Arizona is a place ripe with history, and with local authors and historians. We convinced one of our favorite local authors and western historians David Grasse to lend us his expertise on the subject of Arizona history and the legend of the American cowboy. Today’s guest author is also the Vice President of our local and much loved Tucson Steampunk Society, member of the Arizona Historical Society, contributing author to The Journal of Arizona History – Summer 2016, and author of The True Untold Story of Commodore Perry Owens. The following is a multiple part series at the look into the life of the American cowboy, with origins history and myth. Enjoy!

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” – from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962.

“And I wanna be a cowboy, baby…” – Kidd Rock, 1998.



He is arguably one of the most-recognized icons in the world. He is instantly identifiable by most the earth’s population from Bonn to Beijing to Bucharest. His cultural equivalent may be found in the European knights of old and in the Japanese samurai tradition, but he is uniquely American. He is the archetype of the American culture – the standard bearer of Americana – simultaneously revered and vilified. He has been the subject of countless books, films, and popular songs and his unmistakable image is utilized by everyone from rock musicians to heads of state. He is America’s enduring romantic legend. He, of course, is the cowboy.

This continuing popularity of the cowboy begs a multitude of questions, foremost being, “why does the image of the cowboy retain such power in our culture?” Additionally, it may be asked how the cowboy became the consummate American mythological hero – the American archetype? Why the cowboy and not the businessman or the physician? How did this under-educated, under-paid, working class youth in a broad-brimmed hat and jingling spurs, who spent the majority of his life on horseback leading cattle from one harsh piece of country to another, become the quintessential American icon? The answer to these questions may be found in the history and representations of the cowboy from his ascendancy in the late 1800’s until the modern era.

It is best to start with a working definition of “cowboy”. The Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines the cowboy as “a man who herds and tends cattle…and goes about most of his work on horseback”. True enough, but this definition is somehow lacking as it fails to define the cowboy’s mystique. In turn, Western historian Ramon F. Adams defines the cowboy as “a man who tends cattle” and further elaborates upon this statement, giving a brief etymology of the term and history of the profession, and states that “today he is known as the hero of the Wild West story, as the eternally hard-riding movie star, as the “guitar-pickin” yodeler, or the gaily-bedecked rodeo follower”. While Adams gives a fuller definition of who the cowboy was and is, he does not explain how the transformation from “a man who follows cows” to “the hero of the Wild West” took place.

The contemporary records relating to the cowboy only serve to further deepen the mystery of how the cowboy became America’s quintessential icon. Adams, in his definition, notes that “a generation ago, the East knew (the cowboy) as a bloody demon of disaster, reckless and rowdy, weighted down with weapons, and ever ready to use them”. Even a cursory review of the historical record confirms what Adams asserts – the cowboy of the late 1800’s was considered by most people, from the cities in the East to the cowtowns and mining camps of the West, to be a necessary evil. While the cowboy served a vital function that was integral to the burgeoning cattle industry in the United States, his existence outside of this function was considered by the general public to be a nuisance at best and usually much worse.

Before considering his faults, it is necessary to consider the history of the cowboy himself. Though there is some dissent, most historians trace the origin of the cowboy to Spanish Mexico and to the Mexican and Indian vaqueros of the 17th and 18th centuries. As historian Howard R. Lamar points out, “…the Texas cowboys learned their trade from the Mexican vaqueros, the heirs of the Spaniards who had herded a type of Longhorn on the plains of Andalusia long before the conquest of the New World”. In fact, the technical vocabulary used by the cowboy to this day evince their Spanish vaquero origins – lariat from la reata, chaps (pronounced shaps) from chaparejos, cinch from cincha, quirt from cuarta, mustang from mestano, etc. These vaqueros even adopted a specific style of dress suited to the job which they performed, including broad-brimmed hats to keep the sun and rain off, leather chaparejos and tall boots to protect the legs in the sagebrush, spurs, gauntlets, and colorful neckerchiefs used to filter the dust generated by the herds. This costume, though modified, would become the standard dress of the cowboy.

With the cessation of hostilities between the North and South and the end of Union blockades of southern ports, the cattle industry in the United States began to boom. As Lamar notes, Texas, which had been “economically devastated” by the war, had an estimated five million head of cattle running wild on the prairies and returning Confederate veterans “found there was little they could do to earn a living other than round up wild cattle and trail them to market. Incentive was provided by the price of cattle and the ready markets in the East, whose cattle population has been decimated by the war.” It was with the establishment of the cattle drive, following trails founded by such men as Charles Goodnight and Jesse Chisolm, pushing Texas cattle northward to the railways for shipment to markets in the North, the East, and the West, that the American cowboy came into being.

For a continued look at the history of such an powerful American icon look for part two of Mr. Grasse’s article next week and remember to stop by one of our stores to pick up one of the many cowboy or Western books we have lining our shelves. The cowboy lives on here at Bookmans.